TCM Underground: Alone in the Dark (1982) and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Today, I bring you a very special TCM Underground write-up.  Not only was this one of my favorite double-features since I started doing this feature months ago, in just a few short hours I’m flying to Las Vegas and I’m getting married.

Alone in the Dark (1982)

Jack Sholder is, for better or worse, going to be most popularly remembered as the director of Nightmare on Elm Street 2, the gay one.  Even though I think Elm Street 2 is underrated as all hell, he’s done much better movies that are criminally under-seen.  Even the direct-to-video sequel Wishmaster 2, in which the evil genie is claiming victims in a prison, is so much fun that it easily overshadows its predecessor.  Sholder’s best, though, is The Hidden, the movie where Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI in search of an alien that jumps from body to body.

While The Hidden is my personal favorite, Alone in the Dark is a lot of fun on its own.  It’s a self-aware piece of trash during the slasher movie boom that knows exactly what it is, and so tries to imbue the movie with as much talent as possible.  Instead of just getting one deranged lunatic with an ax (or knife or whatever), this movie has a gang of them, two of them are played by Martin Landau and Jack Palance, who appear to be having the time of their lives cackling and mugging for the camera.

Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, probably better known as Barclay in Star Trek: The Next Generation) moves his family to a new town when he accepts a job at a state-of-the-art mental facility with unorthodox procedures for treating the mentally ill.  Upon Dan’s arrival, a group of patients at the hospital take an instant dislike to him, believing him to have killed his replacement, who actually just went to work at another hospital.  When an electric blackout leaves the facility without its essential security measures in place, they escape and begin their plot for revenge against Dr. Potter.

There’s Frank Hawkes (Palance), who is their leader, Byron Sutcliff (Landau), a religious zealot with a penchant for murder, Ronald Elster (Erland van Lidth), a giant man who is a child molester and murderer, and then there’s the one know only as “The Bleeder” whose identity is kept a secret until the end.  When we first see the Bleeder, he’s donning a hockey mask and I wonder if this is homage or coincidence, since Friday the 13th Part 3, the first movie where Jason puts on the classic mask, had only come out three months before.

The “siege” scenario is a popular one in horror movies because it gets to stick most of the climactic action to just one location and it gets everyone together all at once.  It’s easy to make a very suspenseful movie without a whole lot of money.  Alone in the Dark recalls some of the classics like Night of the Living Dead, Straw Dogs or even Assault on Precinct 13.

Because of Alone in the Dark, I’m afraid that I might have “Chop, chop, chop up your mother,” stuck in my head for the rest of my life.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

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On a night just like any other, a comet streaks across the sky and touches down in a flash of fantastic light.  When the location of the comet is found, it turns out to be an alien spacecraft piloted by evil creatures who look like clowns.  They web their victims up in a cocoon of cotton candy and then suck the victim’s blood out with silly straws when they get gelatinous enough to drink.  They even have guns that shoot popcorn.  One thing I’m thankful for in the narrative is that it doesn’t take the cop that’s suspicious of this story about bloodsucking clowns until too long to finally believe it–once he actually sees some spooky shit, he becomes convinced very quickly, as I think someone probably would in reality, if something so absurd were to actually occur.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is one of those movies that hits the ground running.  It doesn’t waste a lot of time with setting up.  It prefers to do that through action.  The characters, the movie figures, we can get to know while they’re either running from extraterrestrial clowns or figuring out a way to defeat the invasion.  And, like the other night’s feature, it’s completely self-aware, but not in a too-cool-for-school, ironic kind of way; Killer Klowns definitely wants to be entertaining and is committed to being as bizarre, fun, outrageous and imaginative as it possibly can be.  That commitment sometimes works as a hindrance to the movie’s overall plot (what plot?), but goddammit is it ambitious.  Even when it somewhat stumbles or even fails in some regards, it’s always a worthy effort.

If I have one big gripe I want to point out in particular, it’s the ending of the movie.  The film’s climax is an overblown special effects extravaganza, which is a shame.  There’s no longer any sort of investment to what’s happening because it’s just one special effect after another and it sort of dulled my senses.  To the film’s credit, the special effects are actually quite good.  And especially for the time, and for its budget of only $2 million, they looks pretty damn good, all things considered.

Gripes aside, Killer Klowns is a lot of fun.  The movie is at its best during the sequences where the titual klowns are running around the town looking for victims.  Some of these scenes really stretch its PG-13 MPAA rating to its fullest extent, such as when one of alien klowns gets into a boxing match with a guy who asks, “What’re you gonna do, knock my block off?” and has just that happen to him, decapitated head flying into a trash can and all.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space, in a strange way, reminds me of the video game, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, a sort of giddy pastiche of horror tropes and cliches, wrapped up in an almost naive presentation that remembers scary movies as being something almost inconceivable.  I’m surprised I didn’t get to see this movie until just now.  I’ve always been aware of it, but never got around to watching it, but now I wish I had because I think this is the perfect horror movie for kids.  Sometimes it can get a little intense, especially with the violence, but this movie works as an almost perfect introduction to the genre, a loving tribute the world of macabre imagery.

Stray Observation:  John Vernon, who plays the shitty cop that hates college kids, also voiced Rupert Thorne in Batman: The Animated Series.

Next Week: Anatomy of a Psycho and Homicidal.